What is this #ttrpg about? Nothing!

This QRT & the thread it’s q-ing threw a light on something I’d like to think I’d have gotten to sooner or later.

But maybe not. Anyway. When I wrote Forest Outlaws, I wanted to make a game that encouraged player-characters to enjoy Robin Hood style adventures. I though about what the early Robin Hood legends contained–what characteristics the people had, what actions they undertook, and where they did their things.

I came up with three traits, described a simple way to differentiate PCs from one another, and provided an un-keyed map (with locations marked). I called all of that ‘guidance’ and said there was only one rule; nobody dies.

In a recent post here, I talked a bit about my thoughts on how mechanics can be used to turn character actions into models of real-world activities.

So, as I do game design for role-play, I have the idea that guidance is better than rules, and that mechanics are a way to model actions.

This tweet, and the underlying conversation, highlighted for me this idea that games aren’t “about” something. Loosely, and for the purposes of this post, a “game” is a “set of rules/guidance designed to encourage players toward a certain kind of play (probably in the form of a stable text).” Without defining what “kind of play” means at this time.

Games aren’t about something, games are about nothing. At least in the sense that novels, or movies, or short stories, or poems (sometimes, anyway) are about something.

When I say games are about nothing, I don’t mean to say games are nihilistic, or that role-playing games are devoid of meaning. All I’m saying is that, at this moment, I don’t think role-playing games convey being about something in the same way that a thing that’s not a role-playing game does.

Like, take the TV show M*A*S*H, for instance. It is about US Army medical professionals on the front lines of the Korean Conflict in the 1950s. It has a stable cast of characters (nurses, doctors, military types), who have skills and relationships, and deal with injured people, and try to keep their own humanity & extend the scope of the humanity they deal with during a time of war.

Some of that could be mechanized into a table top role-playing game: surgical skills, nursing skills, military/bureaucracy skills, countdown mechanics, and so on. But a crucial part of what the TV show is about, the humanity of the characters, relies so much on scriptwriters that it is difficult to mechanize that.

Being humane is relational, and while you could mechanize, say, leveling up (whatever that means) by tying it to how the players role-play, there’s a risk of Flanderizing the PCs. There are lots of ways to build table top role-playing games, so I don’t want to say it’s impossible for a game to be about something. I’m saying that the medium of the ttrpg isn’t as suited to being about something as a structured narrative medium is.

So. Going forward, I’ll keep this in mind. The games I build will want to encourage a play experience, but not try to be about something. I’ll keep thinking about what character actions I think will support that experience. And I’ll think about how modeling those actions will translate into mechanics, and how different ways of modeling actions more (or less) support the experience I hope players have.

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